Luis Meléndez (1715–1780) began his career with all the promise of a prize-winning student at the Royal Academy of Arts in Madrid, where his father taught. But the young man's prospects disintegrated when both he and
his father were expelled from the academy owing to clashes with the
administration over perceived slights, an occurrence that significantly hampered the son's career. Meléndez aspired to the prestigious and lucrative post of royal painter (pintor de cámara), but all four of his petitions to the king were denied, in part because of his difficult nature.
Instead, Meléndez became the greatest still-life painter of 18th-century Spain. In 1771, having reached middle age, he finally received a commission from Charles III, Prince of Asturias (later King Charles IV),
and his wife, Princess Maria Luisa, to paint an extensive series of still lifes for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace.
These works were intended to depict "the four Seasons of the Year...with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate." The commission became the central event in Meléndez's life and led to modest success among other patrons. Because of his masterful ability to capture subtle variations in texture and color, the marvelous effects of the play of light, and meticulously observed details, his still lifes are among the finest ever painted. Unfortunately, the series was abruptly cancelled around
Christmas 1776, and no paintings by the artist were signed and dated
after that time. In June 1780, ill in bed, Meléndez declared himself a
pauper and died the next month.
Nine of Meléndez's paintings from the royal commission are presented here, along with twenty-two other works from American and European collections. They are displayed with a sampling of everyday objects of the type the artist kept in his studio as props for his vivid still lifes.